My wife and I learned of the passing of Rav Meir Schuster, zt”l while en route to the chupah of Yehuda Abraham.* My thoughts leapt back three decades. The mother of the chosson, Rebbitzen Geula, then Liesl, was a 20-year-old Bostonian attending Tel Aviv University. On a trip to the Kosel, she met Reb Meir who brought her to our home in Jerusalem’s Old City to discuss a subject she was very interested in: women in Judaism. Her knowledge of Judaism at the time was such that when invited for a Shabbos meal she initially demurred, saying she was busy on Sunday.
Today, the Abrahams are mekarev other Jews. They are dynamic yeshiva educators, shluchim of Chabad-Lubavitch. Their kiruv-based home, overflowing with guests on Shabbos, is a center for Torah and outreach. A teacher of Torah and the author of a book for teachers on the weekly parsha, Rebbitzen Geula is the founder of a group that has increased mikveh use in her city by 400%. The Abrahams have been mekarev scores ofJews, many of whom now have sizable families of their own – and some also do outreach. Geulah was mekarev her sister, who now teaches Torah, is active in kiruv and has published an ArtScroll book. My wife and I fly to New York to attend the weddings of all the Abraham children – Yehuda is the fourth of the nine to be married – almost all of whom are, or plan to be, Chabad shluchim doing kiruv rechokim theworld over.
Rebbitzen Abraham is just one of many thousands of Jews who Rav Meir Schuster introduced to Yiddishkeit in the nearly 40 years he devoted to bringing Jews back to their tradition. Day after day, seven days a week, early morning to late at night, rain or shine, hot or cold, Rav Meir would approach young Jewish men and women in Jerusalem with an opener such as, “Do you have the time?” (The joke was that you could stop kiruv cold by buying Meir Schuster a wristwatch.) Then, “Are you Jewish?” followed by “Would you like to attend a Jewish studies lecture?” or “Would you like to meet a wise man?” or “Would you like to join a Jerusalem family for a Shabbos meal?” If they agreed to attend a class, he would usually take the men to Aish HaTorah, Ohr Someyach, or D’var Yerushalayim, the women to Neve Yerushalayim or Eyaht. Catering mostly to English-speakers, these are less conventional yeshivos or seminaries than kiruv institutions which teach Jewish basics and more to young Jews who wish to learn about Judaism.
On Friday evening and at mid-morning on Shabbos, Reb Meir would stand in the square at the Kosel, surrounded by college-age students whom he had gathered and would then escort them to homes around Jerusalem for Shabbos meals. Eventually, Rav Schuster would establish hostels in the Jewish Quarter for men and women, known today as “Heritage House.” There are tens of thousands of Jews who are living fully observant lives because of him. Rav Meir Schuster was probably the single most successful mekarev of Jews in history. He became a legend in his time and a significant factor in the extraordinary growth of the baal teshuvah movement in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, until 2007, when a debilitating illness arrested him.
Who was Rav Meir Schuster? What motivated him to dedicate his life to kiruv rechokim? Perhaps most importantly, how was he so astonishingly successful? Was he a charismatic, super-salesman gifted with incredible salesmanship?
Not at all. Born and bred in Milwaukee and educated at Beis Hamidrash LaTorah, Ner Yisrael, Meir Tzvi Schuster was the antithesis of the salesman-type. Quiet, soft-spoken, naturally shy, even introverted, Reb Meir never spoke about himself; for that matter he didn’t speak much at all. You might consider what he was doing as “selling” Judaism, but were you interviewing sales candidates you would exclude him first. Indeed, he would be the last person anyone would have selected for the demanding task of bringing young estranged Jews back to their Jewish roots. Reb Meir represented the ultimate paradox. Neither charismatic nor polished, neither urbane nor charming, he was in fact the exact opposite – reserved, taciturn, at times almost tongue-tied. Reb Meir was also genuinely modest and humble. Most implausibly, this diffident introvert would devote days and nights to the ultimate in “cold-calling” – persuading Jewish travelers to make a 180-degree shift in the direction of their lives.